Vintage Pullman railcar reveals secrets of the Calif. coast

A couple weeks back I saw a flier in a local shop advertising a day trip on a vintage railway car.  The classic 39 seat first class lounge was built in 1949 by the famous Pullman Standard Car Manufacturing Company for use on the old San Francisco Overland Trail line between Chicago and San Francisco on the now defunct passenger service of Southern Pacific Railroad.

We arrived at Santa Barbara’s Amtrak station on Sunday morning as the San Luis Obispo-bound Amtrak train pulled in the station.  The familiar sight of Amtrak’s polished steel train was interrupted by what I would soon learn was the trademark “Daylight” paint scheme of the old Southern Pacific line.  Our Pullman car dropped off a trainload of Los Angeles day-trippers bound for Santa Barbara’s urban wine trail – a prearranged combination train ride and wine tour – and we boarded the classically luxurious streamliner.

Our scenic trip on Southern Pacific railcar 2981 took us through the rarely seen Santa Barbara County coastline, obscured by private ranches, rugged terrain and the implicit secrecy of Vandenberg Air Force Base.  As photo opportunities whizzed by the large, crystal-clear windows, I tried my best to snap my shutter.  The train’s antique windows had an odd effect on the digital exposures, giving each shot a sort of vintage look and coloring.  All of the photos in the gallery were taken on Sunday August 29, 2010, but have a strange quality that, at a glance, might be mistaken for August 29, 1950.

The tracks wind past the infamous Point Conception and Point Arguello where the mostly southern facing coastline of Santa Barbara jogs northward toward the notoriously sharky and perilous waters of the California Central Coast.  Past Vandenberg the missile launch sites are clearly visible on the leeward side of the tracks, as is the gigantic 15,000-foot long runway on the base.

While the Santa Barbara to San Luis Obispo trip is relatively new, the Overland Trail car was purchased 23 years ago by Bill Hatrick and his wife Debbie. They restored the train to its original splendor, complete with stewardess’s quarters and a on-board barber shop. The Hatricks claim that they are just one year away from being the car’s longest-term owners, as their records indicate that Southern Pacific itself owned the 2981 railcar for 24 years.  Bill serves as conductor and host for the rides.  He beamed with pride as he explained the process of restoring the classic railcars to Amtrak’s modern specifications, complete with sanitary holding tanks, rendering quaint the original posted lavatory warnings about not flushing while the train is standing in the station.

When not gliding up the coast hitched to an Amtrak locomotive, the Overland Trail sleeps in Los Angeles Union Station where it is available for charter for a variety of occasions.  The Hatrick’s 2981 railcar was even featured in Clint Eastwood’s “Flags of our Fathers,” among other productions.

Visit the complete photo gallery for more images of our journey up the coast, including photos of the launch facilities at Vandenberg.  More information and a complete history on the Overland Trail Club Lounge Car can be found at larail.com. For booking information on the Santa Barbra  to San Luis Obispo route call Terry at 805.680.0397.